The incredible shrinking presidency
The Economist/Nov 9th 2006
George Bush's presidency seems smaller after the mid-terms; but he can still produce a useful legacy
It may not have been the electoral tsunami some pollsters had been predicting, but it was still pretty impressive. The Republicans' advantages, in the shape of more money and more gerrymandered seats, could not save them from a drubbing at the hands of an opposition with little in the way of new policies and even less likelihood of carrying any of them out.
The Democrats may not be able to govern, but they have suddenly acquired plenty of negative power. Their gain of close to 30 seats in the House of Representatives gives Nancy Pelosi, who will now become America's first woman speaker, comfortable control of the chamber that holds the government's purse-strings. And, although recounts may stalk Virginia for a while, it looks pretty clear that the Democrats will take the Senate as well, and with it the power to ratify treaties and confirm the appointments of judges, ambassadors and other high officials. Overnight, George Bush's stature has been mightily diminished—an impression reinforced by the speedy resignation of his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
Yet Mr Bush is still president for the next two years, and how he (and the Democrats) handle that time is of huge importance to both America and the world. Humbled though he has been, Mr Bush remains the dominant figure both in domestic politics and abroad. And he has one last opportunity to establish a more useful legacy. The main reason why his presidency seems so small nowadays is that he has meandered so far off track—into the quagmire of Iraq, the corrupt marshes of big-government conservatism and the divisive temples of the theocrats. He now has two years to find the right path.
The main opportunity lies abroad. Although Mr Bush sounded mildly chastened when he spoke to the nation on November 8th, the day after the election, under America's constitution the conduct of foreign policy and defence lies squarely in the hands of the president, not of Congress. Strangely enough, he may feel somewhat freer than he did. He no longer faces any trial at the ballot box, and is not even intent on securing the presidency for his vice-president. And despite the sneers from Europe, when it comes to diplomacy, he has experience on his side: by next summer, he should be the longest-serving leader in the G7 countries.
Mr Bush has always been something of a gambler. That leaves room for dramatic gestures, from resuscitating the Middle East peace process which he has ignored for too long, to a deal with Iran (or, more dangerously, an attack on it). However, most of the challenges America faces abroad—a nuclear North Korea, an aggressive oil-fired Russia, a rising China—remain as intractable as ever: they do not lend themselves to dramatic shifts in policy, only to more of the same hard slog.
This applies, above all, to Iraq. Anyone expecting an immediate American withdrawal will be disappointed. Mr Bush, so he says, is “committed to victory”. Unless they are planning to cut off funding to troops in the field, an unthinkable option so close to the next presidential election, the Democrats can do nothing about it. On the other hand, the mid-term elections were, in great part, a referendum on his administration's sub-standard performance in Iraq. Replacing the incompetent Mr Rumsfeld was long overdue. Another opportunity to change tactics may come with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by James Baker, a former secretary of state, and also including Robert Gates, Mr Rumsfeld's replacement.
At home the president looks greatly weakened. He has found it difficult to get bills through Congress, thanks to divisions in his own party: now, he will find it almost impossible. It is hard to foresee any serious attempt to tackle America's largest domestic problem, the rampant growth of spending on “entitlements” such as pensions and health care which, if left unchecked, will bankrupt the government. The cause of free trade has also been set back. The Democrats will probably not renew the president's “fast-track” trade negotiation authority when it expires next year, and may use their majority to pick holes in a number of pending free-trade deals. And bruising battles over tax seems a certainty. Mr Bush wants to get his 2001 tax cuts renewed (they expire in 2010), but the Democrats loathe them as handouts to the rich. Less controversial will be a hike in the minimum wage, unchanged for nearly ten years. The president has already hinted he might agree to that.
There is more scope for cross-party collaboration, if both sides are big enough to take the plunge. One promising area should be immigration reform, where Mr Bush's progress was impeded earlier this year by House Republicans (who have refused all talk of offering citizenship to illegal immigrants) rather than the Democrats (who have courted immigrants' votes). A bipartisan push on energy and the environment is another possibility: American politics is greening at a rapid rate, not just in California, which has led the way in seeking to impose caps on carbon emissions, but even in such oil-addicted places as Texas, where astute businessmen increasingly see the potential of windpower, biofuels and photocells.
Why on earth should the Democrats help a man who has questioned their patriotism repeatedly? In large part by recognising that they didn't win the mid-terms: the Republicans lost them. Iraq, Katrina, Foley—these names and the sleaze and incompetence they denoted turned a fairly conservative electorate against a party that had achieved so little. The Democrats were clever enough to tack to the centre at a time when the Republicans appeared to have lurched to the extreme right. Ms Pelosi, no centrist by inclination, did a good job of holding her troops to a moderate platform. The Democrats picked up many of their seats, particularly in the mountain West and in big states like Pennsylvania and Indiana, by fielding candidates who look like moderate Republicans.
The new Democratic majority must be careful not to throw those gains away by moving back towards the left when the worldly delights of congressional committee chairmanships are theirs. The gains—many of them due only to the ousting of scandal-beset Republicans—could easily be reversed. One important force for moderation will probably be Hillary Clinton, whose journey towards the political centre this week saw her rewarded with a landslide victory in New York.
The Republicans too should look to the centre ground. There are some signs that social conservatism has peaked: a bid to ban abortion failed in South Dakota; a ban on gay marriage failed for the first time in Arizona; and in Ohio the Bible-bashing Ken Blackwell, who aspired to be governor, went down in flames. The main message from the mid-terms for the presidential race in 2008 is that America is weary of polarisation. The prospects of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, neither of them conventional conservatives, have improved.
Most, however, depends on Mr Bush's willingness to change his ways. A smaller presidency might be a still more defensive, inward-looking one. That would be an understandable reaction to this week's “thumpin'” (as he called it), but wrong. As things stand, Mr Bush will go down in history as a president who promised much but achieved little. He has two years to change posterity's mind.